Women's Health

Epidural alternatives: Relief during labor

Husband and wife talking to the doctor

An epidural is a commonly known pain relief option during labor that involves the delivery of medication through a catheter in the back. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of women opt for an epidural during labor and delivery, but what are the alternatives?.

“Epidurals are safe and effective for managing pain during labor and delivery. But, you have other less invasive options to control pain that aren’t as well known like nitric oxide and hydrotherapy,” says Elizabeth Waring, M.D., obstetrician and gynecologist with Riverside Health System.

Laughing gas eases the pain of labor

Nitric oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, can be used to ease the pain of childbirth. To help control pain, a woman in labor inhales a mixture of nitric oxide and oxygen through a mask just before a contraction begins. 

“Nitric oxide affects everyone differently, but for many, it eases pain, reduces anxiety and takes the edge off of labor,” says Dr. Waring.

Laughing gas gets its nickname from the silly feeling it gives many people. You may also feel a bit drowsy or lightheaded. For that reason, you should use it under careful supervision during labor. 

Nitric oxide is safe for you and your baby. The effect wears off after a few breaths without the mask, so you begin to feel normal again reasonably quickly.

Warm water immersion relieves discomfort

“It’s no secret that a warm bath is a great way to relax and unwind after a long day. Immersion in warm water during labor, called hydrotherapy, can provide the same soothing effect during childbirth,” says Dr. Waring. 

Hydrotherapy reduces pain and provides comfort during labor. Despite its effectiveness, it is not commonly used in the U.S. 

The National Listening to Mothers survey found that only 8 percent of mothers used water immersion for pain management. However, the same survey noted that it was the second most effective strategy for managing pain (epidural was the first). According to the moms surveyed, hydrotherapy was more effective than other natural pain management methods like breathing techniques or changing positions. Nearly 50 percent reported hydrotherapy managed their pain very well.

Health care providers follow guidelines to keep the hydrotherapy experience safe for you and your baby.

Talk to your doctor about your options, before the big day

While an epidural is the most common pain management strategy used during childbirth, it’s good to understand that safe and effective alternatives are available.

It’s never too early to talk to your doctor about your options and the resources at your birthing center. 

Learn more about pregnancy and birth and our women and infant services including virtual hospital tours and childbirth classes.

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